Before we kept bees, I thought all honey tasted the same - sweet, golden and squeezed from a plastic bear from the grocery store. I liked it but rarely ate it. Then in 2009, honeybees entered our lives and showed us the incredible variety a single hive can produce and turned us into major honey addicts. Today our honeybee hosts have beehives located all across Ottawa from Lanark, to Kemptville, to Cumberland and its remarkable to see the different flavours their honeybees produce.
Honey's flavour depends on the flowers that the honeybees visit to make it. Most grocery store is produced from Canola, which is grown in large quantities in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The trouble is that Canola honey crystallizes (turns solid) extremely quickly. To slow down crystallization, it needs to be pasteurized (heated) and filtered to remove any pollen that can trigger crystallization. This also unfortunately makes it all taste the same and rids it of its beneficial properties.
This is different from honey from your backyard. Honeybees fly up to 5 km to find flowers, so
your honey tastes like your neighbourhood! The flowers visited by the bees vary over the season (spring, summer, fall), between seasons (such as a dry year vs a wet year) and between hives (placed in fallow fields, cities, forests, etc). Like wine, honey has 'terroir' also called'taste of place.' So what is Ottawa's terroir? Here are just a few of the many honeys produced here:
Dandelion Honey - The first 'honey flow' (aka major flower bloom) is the dandelion bloom in May. Dandelion is packed with pollen and nectar which is great for getting the bees set for summer. Dandelion honey doesn't taste very good (has a sharp taste and smells like dandelion) and crystallizes very fast. Its best for the bees!
Spring Wildflower Honey - The second big bloom happens in June. We call honey produced at this time "spring wildflower" because it is hard to know what flowers the bees have visited to make it. It is usually a good mix of clover, vetch, trefoil, fruit blossoms (apples, wild raspberries) and any wildflower blooming in abundance at that time of the year. It has a lighter colour and mild flavour.
Linden Honey - This honey is from Basswood tree nectar, also in June. Amazingly, during a heavy bloom year, the honeybees can fill a honey super (top box) in 2-4 days! When harvested, Linden honey has a greenish colour but then turns clear to amber over time. It has a fresh taste and a long finish (aftertaste), which tastes a bit like green jolly rancher candies.
Fall Wildflower Honey - August marks the start of the fall honey flow. Fall honey includes lots of goldenrod, aster, and other fall wildflowers. When the bees start bringing in goldenrod nectar you can actually smell it in the apiary - it's a warm, cheesy licorice smell - it's hard to describe - and nothing like the flavour of the eventual honey. Compared to spring, Goldenrod honey is darker with a bolder flavour. It crystallizes very fast - within a couple of months, which makes it great for spreading on toast!
Buckwheat - is the last honey of the year made from nectar from fields of buckwheat. The honey is very dark with a rich, earthy, malt flavour that is like molasses. It has more antioxidants than other honeys. Buckwheat honey is harder to find today than in the past due to a sharp decline in buckwheat cultivation from the introduction of nitrogen fertilizer and the popularity of soybean.
This is just a short start to describing Ottawa's honeys. Our region can also produce clover, apple blossom, purple loosestrife, black locust, raspberry, forest honey, and others. I can't wait to tell you more about it!